Thousands march in support of Christian governor accused of blaspheming Islam

by Gregory Tomlin, |
People take part in a rally against what they see as growing racial and religious intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on November 19, 2016. | REUTERS/Iqro Rinaldi

JAKARTA, Indonesia (Christian Examiner) – Indonesians who feel Jakarta's Christian governor has gotten a raw deal by being charged with blasphemy for quoting the Quran gathered in the streets Nov. 19 to show support for the governor and the idea of religious diversity.

The peaceful protest Saturday attracted more than 10,000 people, most of whom were young and part of a generation that is open to new ideas. They were joined by religious leaders, legislators and the leaders of several human rights organizations.

Jakarta experienced violent protests Nov. 4 when hardline Islamists accused Christian Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as "Ahok") of blasphemy for quoting the Quran. Ahok, who is ethnically Chinese, is facing a Muslim opponent in elections this February.

We are gathering here not to protest but to show that we are not easily divided by religious or political issues.

According to several hardline Muslim groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front, Ahok quoted the Quran's injunction against taking Christians and Jews as friends during a speech. He said Muslims should not be deceived by the teaching and refuse to vote for him or accept non-Muslim leaders because of it.

That kicked massive protests in Jakarta. The 100,000 marchers were peaceful during the day, but turned violent at nighttime. Police had to use teargas, a water cannon and flash grenades to break up the protests. They also ended up charging Ahok, but it is up to federal prosecutors to actually take the case to court. They may or may not.

Ahok – who was serving as deputy governor when he was appointed to his current position is 2014, just after the province's governor, Joko Widodo, was elected president – is a close political ally of the president.

Government officials are also increasingly worried that caving into hardline Islamist demands will only embolden groups like the Islamic State, which is seeking to gain a foothold in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Protestors in Jakarta have different ideas. They chanted slogans in support of Ahok and promoted greater tolerance for competing ideas in Indonesian culture. They also chanted, "United Indonesia cannot be defeated."

"We are gathering here not to protest but to show that we are not easily divided by religious or political issues," Budiman Sujatmiko, a legislator with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the country's largest political group, said.

"This is about diversity, but also about unity. We have to separate politics from ethnicity, religion, and race," 25-year old Iwan Saputra said. "I want Indonesia to stay united."

Indonesia does allow diversity of belief, as long as it is one of six approved religions. Its officials, however, often succumb to Islamist demands. There were 106 convictions for blasphemy in Indonesia from 2004 to 2014, Amnesty International reported.

Several of the organizations that protested the blasphemy charge against Ahok were Muslim.

"The economy is growing, infrastructure is being built everywhere. Don't let this all be destroyed just because of ego," Saidiman Ahmad, an activist with Liberal Islam Network, told Reuters.